Giorgio Chiellini has played in two European Championship finals, two World Cups, an Olympic bronze-medal game and more than 425 matches in Italy’s first division. But he never had played in a league playoff match until last season, his first with LAFC.
In much of the soccer world, the team that finishes the league schedule atop the table is the champion. In MLS, however, that team gets the Supporters’ Shield and the No. 1 seed in a six-week playoff tournament that determines the MLS Cup champion — aka the real league champion.
And Chiellini loves it.
“It’s something challenging, something new that gives energy to the league,” he said. “You have to play until the end.”
LAFC won both the Shield and the Cup last year, just the second team in 11 seasons to do so. It did that by winning the most exciting MLS Cup final in history on penalty kicks, concluding arguably the best postseason tournament ever.
LAFC (14-10-10) will open defense of that title Saturday at BMO Stadium against the Vancouver Whitecaps (12-10-12), a team it played to a 1-1 draw in the regular-season finale last weekend.
But, because this is MLS, the journey to this year’s championship game will be different. The league, which has a penchant for trying to fix things that aren’t broken, has redone its playoff format, introducing a best-of-three conference quarterfinal round, followed by single games for the conference semifinals, finals and MLS Cup championship.
It’s a schedule that universally has been panned.
“Personally, I’m not a fan of the best of three,” LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau said. “Why exactly? Soon we’ll play a best of seven and the season’s going to end Dec. 31 and then we’ll come [back] Jan. 5. But we have to deal with the new format.”
The expanded postseason follows an expanded regular season, in which LAFC played a franchise-record 48 games in five competitions — the U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League, Campeones Cup and Leagues Cup in addition to 34 MLS games. It was an exhausting schedule, averaging a game every five days.
However, if LAFC goes the distance in the playoffs, it will play just six times in 49 days, with an international break pausing the tournament for two weeks between the first and second rounds. If the regular season measured endurance, the postseason will test each team’s patience.
“Honestly, I don’t understand what is the point of three games in the first round and after that three more games to win the championship,” captain Carlos Vela said. “I don’t know exactly what they are thinking.”
Scheduling aside, what LAFC is thinking about is winning a second consecutive MLS Cup, something just two other teams have done this century.
“Can we do that? Yes,” Chiellini said. “We're very good and we'll see. It's a big challenge for us.”
Although playoffs still are novel for the former Italian national team captain, he’s a student of MLS history and knows the format frequently rewards not the best team, but the one with the most momentum.
“Sometimes it’s not fair. But that’s part of the spark,” he said.
As an example, Chiellini pointed to FC Cincinnati, which lost just one of its first 18 games and cruised to the Supporter’s Shield. But its season will be over if it loses two of its next three to the New York Red Bulls, a team it beat by 26 points in the standings.
“MLS Cup is the real champion,” said Chiellini, whose team finished eighth in the MLS table. ”Cincinnati was the best team, for consistency, all year. And they deserve to celebrate. But at the end if they don't win the Cup, it’s like they’ve done nothing.”
LAFC enters the playoffs riding that all-important momentum. The team recovered from a summer swoon to lose just one of its final seven games. And just as important, most-valuable-player candidate Dénis Bouanga — the Golden Boot winner with a league-leading 20 goals — has found his form again, scoring six times in his last three starts.
Bouanga is the third LAFC player to lead the league in scoring in the last five years. No other team has had three different scoring champions.
“A little bit more than a month ago, we started to play as a solid team,” Chiellini said. “We are in good [form]. All the players are available and it's an important thing for us, especially in going to the playoff. We are ready, for sure.”
There’s another thing Chiellini likes about the playoffs — the winners all get rings. Chiellini won 11 league titles in 22 seasons in Italy but wasn’t fitted for a championship ring until winning one with LAFC.
“I grew up watching the NBA and I love this type of ring. I would like to have another one. I have some space available,” he said, holding up two hands adorned with only a thin wedding band.
These playoffs likely will represent his last chance to win more jewelry since Chiellini’s contract expires when the season does. LAFC certainly got a bargain for the roughly $1.5 million it paid him over the last 17 months. Signed largely for his experience and wisdom, Chiellini made 17 MLS starts, second-most for an LAFC center back this season. But at 39, he’s unsure how much fuel is left in the tank.
“The best solution for me now is, enjoy present and at the end have some conversation with the club and also with my family in order to understand what is the best thing to do for the future,” said Chiellini, who plans to stay in Los Angeles until his daughters, Nina and Olivia, finish school next spring. “I don't have to decide now. Just concentrate on the playoffs and then we'll see.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.